Good Things

Colin McGinn

Suppose I perform an action certified by morality as good – say, giving money to charity. I then do something good because it is good. We might say that this action had the moral property goodness and that in acknowledging this to be so I had a reason to perform it. Anyone else has an equal reason to perform the same action, which is good no matter who performs it. Thus, generalising: morality is aptly seen as a set of principles that ascribe values to states of affairs and thereby provide reasons for bringing those states of affairs about. Morality says what we ought to do and in so far as we grasp its dictates we have the reasons it specifies: we know what we ought to do, and that we ought to do it is a reason for doing it.

This commonsense picture makes many philosophers squirm, and not because they are avowed moral nihilists. There are two main reasons. The first is that it seems to presuppose moral ‘cognitivism’: the agent recognises goodness as an objective property that may be instantiated by his actions. By ascribing it to an action, he comes to know an objective truth – that his action is (or will be) good. This makes some philosophers nervous, because it suggests a metaphysics they don’t like the look of, whereby goodness becomes a ‘queer’ property of things.

There is a second reason why the picture is found rebarbative: it entails morality affording reasons for action that fail to take into account what the agent may himself desire or what may be in his interest. Once I see that giving money to charity is good I have a reason to do it, but that reason holds whether or not I want to give money to charity. I may not care about the people who will benefit, but there is still a reason for me to do it – that they will benefit. So moral reasons do not appear to depend on my contingent desires. To many philosophers that is hard to take: how could reasons not involve desires?

Philippa Foot is foremost among those who have jibbed at the notion of reasons that are independent of desires. She doesn’t believe in goodness as a property that, once recognised, provides reasons for action. Morality itself does not, for her, supply any reasons for action; reasons come in only when agents have desires that happen to conform to morality’s prescriptions:

Moral judgments are, I say, hypothetical imperatives in the sense that they give reasons for acting only in conjunction with interests and desires. We cannot change that, though we could keep up the pretence that it is otherwise. To hang onto the illusion, and treat moral judgments as necessarily reason-giving, is something I would compare to a similar choice in matters of etiquette; and indeed we do find some who treat the consideration that something is ‘bad form’ or ‘not done’ as if it had a magical reason-giving force.

That an action is morally good is thus not a reason why I should do it. I have no more reason to refrain from murder on account of its badness than I do to refrain from holding my fork in my right hand when in England, where it isn’t done. Reasons enter the picture only if I happen to desire to act in accordance with the rule in question. Morality thus has no intrinsic rational authority over our wills. There is nothing contrary to reason about not doing the right thing, and irrationality can only consist in not doing what will best satisfy our desires (which may be egoistic or altruistic).

This doctrine is rightly seen as subversive and disturbing. The mere fact that something is good is not, according to Foot, even a start at providing a reason to do it; it is the wrong kind of consideration altogether. We get into the realm of reasons only when we dig around in someone’s actual desires and decide that he happens to want to do various things, as it might be to keep promises. Reasons are internal to the agent and variable across agents; morality’s apparent universality is a fiction. This is a radical view. Instead of being able to say to the miscreant ‘You should do such and such’ and expect this to supply him with a reason, we can only say ‘If you look inside yourself, you will see that you really want to do such and such.’ Rational persuasion then comes to an end if he retorts ‘Actually, I don’t want to do such and such, thank you very much.’

Such a view puts Philippa Foot, the model of propriety, no sort of wild woman, into the same camp as the most extreme moral nihilist. She does not reject the content of ordinary morality or favour existential choice as the way to kick-start a moral psychology; but she does hold that there is no sense in which to be moral is to be on the side of reason, that it is irrational, indeed, to be guided by morality if your desires don’t incline you that way. There is nothing unreasonable about someone who fully accepts that promise-keeping is good, yet sees absolutely nothing in favour of doing it. If he desires to keep promises and fails to, then he is being unreasonable; not otherwise. For Foot, morality is practically inert.

It might be possible to hold a similar position in respect of logic. We normally think that an inference’s being valid is a reason to make it, and its being invalid a reason not to make it. Asked for my reason for believing that q, I might say that it follows by modus ponens from p and ‘if p then q’ – my reason is that this is a valid rule of inference. A Footian would say that this was a mistake. Validity itself is not a reason for forming one’s beliefs in a certain way; rather, we need to determine whether the thinker desires to reason validly. If she does not, she is not being irrational in reasoning by invalid rules of inference. We may hope that people will desire to reason as logic says they should, but we can’t accuse them of unreason if they fail to.

Such a view of logical reasoning will strike most people as radical and bizarre: they will incline to the view that logic supplies us with a set of reasons for forming our beliefs according to certain rules and not others. Yet Foot and those who think like her (including Bernard Williams) reject the analogous position with respect to morality. Assuming that they would not embrace the view that logical reasons depend on our desires, they must then hold that goodness and validity differ fundamentally when it comes to providing reasons. An opponent of their position, such as myself, will wonder how to justify this difference and why it should be thought necessary to deny the commonsense view of ethical reasons. If reasons do not generally have to depend on desires to be reasons, why must they in the special case of morality?

Virtues and Reasons collects together a group of distinguished contributors, who nod in the direction of the honoree and then talk about what interests them. Some of the book is about Foot’s moral philosophy, but a lot of it isn’t. I shall comment on a few of the papers that engage most directly with Foot’s views on moral reasons.

Warren Quinn’s paper, ‘Putting Rationality in its Place’, is the best in the volume, both in its clarity and in the correctness of its arguments. He undermines Foot’s position in the most direct way possible, by arguing that desires considered in themselves cannot be reasons at all, only judgments of value can. Reasons have to be justificatory, since they show an action to be rational; they cannot be merely causal. But since only propositions can justify, reasons must be propositional. Desires cannot be reasons, since desires are not propositions. So the desire theory needs to be reformulated to the effect that propositions about desires constitute reasons.

But which propositions about desires? There seem to be only two serious options: first, the proposition that I have the desire; second, the proposition that satisfying the desire would be a good thing in some way. The first possibility is surely inadequate: why should the mere fact that I have a desire be a reason to act on it? Quinn gives the example of a brute desire to turn on any radio I come across. Surely a reason should make it apparent that my action has some good attached to it. But the mere fact that I have the desire fails to deliver that. And what about desires it is not good to act on, say jumping off a high building when under the influence of vertigo? Isn’t it really because satisfying a given desire is good that it is reasonable (when it is) to act on it?

So we move on to the second alternative: the proposition that if satisfying my desire is a good thing, this gives me a reason to act on it. But this explicitly assigns a value to something: to the satisfaction of a desire. So the desire theory is not an alternative to the theory that locates reasons in values themselves; it is simply a special case of that theory. We need an independent ascription of value for a desire to become a reason. The reason for acting on the desire is that some good will come of it. The desire causes the action, but its reasonableness depends on the non-causal property of goodness.

This shows that even for egoistic desires an ascription of value is needed if they are to become reasons. But then the obvious commonsense point to make about moral reasons is that they can function simply in virtue of moral values, or the recognition of such. My reason for giving money to charity was that I saw it as morally good; just as my reason for eating a banana would be that I saw it as prudentially good. If I am asked to justify these actions I do so by showing that they have good results, morally or prudentially. I certainly don’t justify them by simply recording the presence of an urge, though I might cite this as their cause; and if I do so this is really an elliptical form of the fuller proposition that it was a desire whose satisfaction would be a good thing. Even if some good attaches to the satisfaction of any desire at all, the point still stands – that it is this goodness that constitutes the reason for acting on it. Suppose we were to identify our desire with a particular brain state; can it then be seriously maintained that our reason for doing something is simply that we are in this brain state? That might well be what causes us to act, but it is not in virtue of this that desires supply reasons – they do so only because they meet certain evaluative conditions. It is reasonable to act on our desires when and only when it is good to satisfy them. Thus values enter into reasons from the start. The upshot of Quinn’s paper is that Foot’s desire theory has misconceived the nature of reasons quite fundamentally, and in doing so has generated a pseudo-problem about moral reasons. Practical reason is concerned by its nature with values as such: they are its proper subject-matter.

Gavin Lawrence arrives at a similar position, though in a more diffuse way and at greater length. It is odd that he makes no mention of Quinn’s work in view of the similarity between them and the fact that they were colleagues until Warren’s tragic early death by suicide as this volume was being prepared. (I became friends with Warren at UCLA in 1979: that a person of his charm, kindness and integrity, as well as intellectual talent, should take his own life is the kind of thing to which it is impossible to become reconciled.) Lawrence makes the same good point about the foundational role of values in the operation of practical reason. It would have been interesting to know Foot’s reaction to these arguments and it is a pity that she hasn’t contributed replies to the papers in this volume.

Of the other contributions those by Simon Blackburn and John McDowell make an opposing pair. McDowell, writing with the preacherly obscurity that has come, regrettably, to characterise his work, offers to defend a new kind of moral naturalism that reaches back to Aristotle. His point seems to be that since the rise of science in the 17th century we have become steeped in a view of the natural world as comprising only the kinds of facts mentioned by the physical sciences, but that the Greeks would have found a place for a wider set, including facts involving moral values. The ideology surrounding science has made us tunnel-visioned.

So far, not so unreasonable. But, in opposition to this, McDowell argues for a view of nature that has ‘intelligible order’ built into it: ’the world of nature is internal to the space of logos, in which thought has its being,’ he intones. But what could this mean? How ‘internal’? The idea is in obvious danger of reducing either to a triviality or to an obvious falsehood (assuming we reject idealism, as McDowell wants us to). Either it means simply that thought succeeds in representing the world – our thoughts sometimes correspond to how things are; which is trivial. Or it means that nature contains thought itself, which is idealism or maybe panpsychism. It is of course true that objective reality must be such that thought can represent it, if it does represent it; but it surely doesn’t follow that ‘the natural world is not constitutively independent of the structure of subjectivity,’ in the sense that there would be no such world if there were no such subjectivity. Kantian idealism does not follow from the correspondence theory of truth. McDowell is pushing for the idea (I use the phrase advisedly) that thought and nature share a common feature or structure, but it is notoriously hard to make sense of this without implying idealism. Hume said we spread our minds on the world; McDowell’s view appears to be that the world is already spread with mind. Finding values in the world is then nothing but finding that our minds have got there before us. It is difficult to see what any of this could mean, unless it is a frank espousal of the Kantian doctrine that the world of our experience is really an experiential world, i.e. idealism. McDowell’s discussion of this central issue is so obscure, metaphorical and undeveloped that one has no idea whether anything can be made to rest on it on behalf of moral realism.

Blackburn defends the opposite point of view: that values are reflections of human sentiment, are subjective to the core. His doctrine is that ‘attitudes, or feelings, or the recognition of reasons for action contain some kind of key to the nature of ethics.’ Ethics is thus really a branch of human psychology, not a discourse about objective values. He sees Foot as moving away from such projectivist theories (as he calls them), notably in the gap that exists for her between ethical judgment and reasons for action. She is psychologistic about moral reasons but not (apparently) about moral truths, while Blackburn favours a psychologism about values, too. Foot’s view is a kind of subjective-objective hybrid, while Blackburn’s is the pure subjective article.

What is strange is that Blackburn simply assumes, as if it were not a substantive point, that moral reasons must be founded in contingent attitudes of caring on the part of the agent; yet surely he would not want to say this of reasons in logic or empirical discourse – where reasons exist even when nobody cares what they recommend. As it were, reasons don’t care whether we care. Blackburn thinks reasons must influence the will – must have motivational force. But this conflates a conceptual with a psychological question. Conceptually, an action’s being good is a reason to do it; psychologically, I may be indifferent to goodness and its reason-giving power. So moral reasons can exist even though they move me not at all, on account of my wickedness or stupidity. Blackburn takes it for granted that ethics must somehow be a matter of human psychology, the only serious question being whether the right part of human psychology to invoke is beliefs or desires, cognition or conation. He simply does not allow space to the idea that values might figure foundationally in the way ethics give us reasons for action. He cannot contemplate for ethics what he would presumably accept for logic: a gap between reasons and psychological dispositions.

What is the attraction of the projectivist position to start with? Blackburn rests his argument on considerations of metaphysical economy: why have values in the world in addition to value-free facts that impinge on people’s sentiments? All the necessary explaining can be done in terms of the facts on which values supervene. This is a perilous argument, however, threatening to eliminate from the world everything that is supervenient on something else. Why not just make do with particles in space and their impact on our sensibility? Why indeed have sensibility at all, in view of its supervenience on the physical? Blackburn’s opposition to objective moral facts can be generalised to alarming effect. He needs to tell us more about how to limit the strength of the argument; he also needs to say more about why explanatory utility should be the only criterion of the real.

The essential thing about morality, as G.E. Moore long ago recognised, is that it stands above the flux of feelings and desires and tendencies to act, because you can ask of any of these whether it is morally good. Goodness cannot be a mere projection from human sentiments because it is always possible to ask of any given sentiment whether it is a good sentiment to have. No matter whether everyone agrees on what they feel approval for, it never follows that what they approve is really good. Judgments of value are logically independent of the existence of patterns of desire. You cannot deduce an ought from an is – even at this late stage of the 20th century.